The impact of Sunday School on air travel

As I prepared to leave for Nepal to run the Annapurna100 Ultra-marathon, I was excited to have negotiated an entire row of 4 seats, all to myself, for the flight.  I knew that hang 4 adjacent seats would make it easy to sleep as we crossed both the Atlantic and Europe, en route to the Middle East.  There is no amount of training or nutrition that can substitute for rest, and there is no chance that I will do well on an Ultra-marathon, at altitude, in a land known for the Earth’s largest mountain range, without good rest leading up the event.

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4 seats, all to myself…so I thought.

Three hours after lift off, I found that the combination of movie watching and eating had made me sleepy.  I stood up and headed to the bathroom before settling into my row of seats to get what I thought would be 8 hours of sleep.  I was grateful that Etihad Airlines had agreed to allocate an entire row of seats for me with no one else sitting in them, and I was quick to share on Facebook using the hashtag #iloveetihad.  It felt like I was flying first class.

The map showed that we were about to leave Canadian airspace and would be over Greenland within a hour.  I visualized that I would wake up somewhere over Russia.  I was so excited to be travelling to the land of world tallest mountains to run an epic race.

Unexpectedly, I woman in Middle Eastern garb approached me and started a conversation that mandated I come to terms with some malformed opinions from my past.  This woman was a Syrian Refugee who was flying to the Middle East for back surgery.  She was having difficulty walking, let alone sleeping, and she asked if she could have my 4 seats so she could rest and offered me her one seat up at the front of the cabin.

It would have been culturally easy to tell her, “no.”  After all, had just negotiated for all those seats and had paid the price of the ticket.  In that moment, I felt righteous in claiming that those seats were mine, and I had the full-support of Etihad, company that owned the transportation service.  Instead, I found myself agreeing with the contents of a recent blog that all but connected the dots that to be a Christian is to be pro-Refugee.

“Yes, Ma’am, you can have my row of seats.”  I picked up my headphones and water bottle and headed to my new single seat up front.  I was feeling upset and self-righteous that my faith was mandating that I suffer, without any joy, when I did nothing wrong.  For sure, this outcome wasn’t anywhere close to my expectations when i negotiated that row of seats just a few hours earlier.

“Thank you, kind sir!”  I only sleep few hours, then I come find you and you sleep some hours.  Is that item OK?”  I knew she was translating from her native tongue into English, and she was expressing a plan that she thought was equitable.

“It must be OK,” I said with a giggle, knowing darn well that God uses moments like these to change people’s hearts.

I have had multiple bad experiences working with the local refugee community in Charlotte. I have found them to be more demanding than newborns  In addition, they are unequaled in their inability to share gratitude with those who are trying to help.  Lastly, they have demonstrated insensitivity to adjust to meet the demands of Charlotte’s culture.  They have shown to me that they are OK not fitting in nor taking steps to improve their lot, no matter how much it hurts them to resist the change.  To be succinct, I found it a waste of time to help them.

In Sunday school, we are discussing pro-life.  Sure, it is nearly always associated with abortion rights, but leaving it only in that context is like saying food shopping is about buying desserts.  The Pro-life position includes a stance with regard to special needs children, the incarcerated, the handicapped and even includes conversations on racism. God loves all life and has never shown any one group greater or lesser favor based on who they are.

In that moment, I didn’t want to give up my seats to a refugee.  I didn’t know her circumstance or anything about the choices that she made that got her to the place where she needed back surgery.  I made me question how the Good Samaritan felt when he, too, stopped and spent both time and money helping someone who had no ability to return the favor.  I wonder if the Samaritan “wanted” to stop and help the guy who lay dying  in the ditch that day.

She kept her word and came to trade back with me a few hours later.  I slept for a few hours before we traded again.  When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, neither of us were rested, but we were both better off than if we had regular seats on the flight.  I knew that the only want to overcome any sense of resentment for the moment was to talk to her and get to know her a bit.  I learned that she had one family member on the plane (sister, maybe), but she had “no more husband,” and based on her body language, it meant he was no longer living.

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Syrian Refugee and me, flying to the MIddle East
As we left the plane to go our separate ways, I lifted her up and prayer and thanked God for using that moment to change my heart, even if only a little.  It wasn’t an accident that I read that NY Times article and had a real world refugee experience in the same month.

As I prepared to board the plane for my final leg of the trip from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu (another 5 hour flight), I was met by a representative from the airlines who took my boarding pass from me and replaced it with a first class service, saying, “Thank you for your advertising.”

It is very tempting and certainly easy to think that this was coincidence based on worldly events.  I know better.  I walked down the Jetway crying like a boy saying, “good bye” to his mother as he left for military boot camp.  I was just used by God…and I got to see it in near real-time.  I got a moment in time when I made the world a better place, and it altered my heart, in the process.

I slept like a baby in a big seat that I didn’t have to share with anyone else on the final flight, and I arrived in Kathmandu, refreshed.  My boys greeted me at the airport with flowers and hugs as we headed into town.  We talked and joked until it was time for bed.

I am nowhere close to pro-refugee, but God is.  And I see that now.

I am running the race of my life in three days.  It is the high point and my “A” race of my athletic year. Yet, I am already sure that the greatest growth moment of this trip has already passed.

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